At the confluence of Leadership & Language
That’s a big word. Being a leader is hard work and carries with it a number of responsibilities. We are lucky enough in Lee’s Summit to have no shortage of leaders who contribute to the growth and evolution of our community through countless civic, charitable and not-for-profit organizations.
A community cannot grow without the involvement of its residents. A community doesn’t exist unless the people are willing to take part in it’s growth and governance. Our entire social and governmental ecosystem is built on citizens stepping forward and taking the responsibilities of citizen leadership.
Whether your involvement comes in the form of time as an elected official, appointed commissioner, member of a board of directors, committee chair, volunteer or even as a monetary donor, that involvement and status as a community leader should be lauded. We should all take every opportunity to celebrate and encourage community involvement.
Unfortunately, this is not what was done last week at the end of a City Council meeting.
Before delving into the sermon from Mayor Bill Baird — a speech largely meant to defend his Council members (really just one) from public and media criticism, let’s take note of a few things.
It doesn’t take more than a quick eye test to let us know we’re in a much better place today than we were the previous two years. It is in no way an overstatement to say this current Council body acts nothing like its predecessor. This Council, changed by just two members as well as the Mayor, is shedding a reputation garnered from manufactured drama, political maneuvering for public “gotcha” moments and slam motions. Instead of repeated calls for resignation by those they disagree with, this body appears to be working together to methodically manage the governance and growth of our City.
And this is in large part due to the person sitting in the middle.
Mayor Baird is making a visible and purposeful effort to insure this Council operates differently. He understands public perception, both inside and outside our City's borders, was not good. He knows there was little confidence in the elected body's ability to govern.
Running for Mayor without any prior experience at the City level, Baird campaigned heavily on the need to restore public trust. In the Council's first work session, he made his intentions clear to both the Council and its constituents by symbolically moving everyone off the dais and to the floor of the chambers. (I liked that move and would like to see it happen every month.) His message then — and now — has been one of inclusiveness. He has made it clear he wants discussion from all members of the Council. And he has repeatedly said he wants all voices, whether from the Council, City Staff or the public to be respected.
All of this is good. It’s very, very good.
Unfortunately, the Mayor took a turn from his message last week. Whether this was just a stumble along the learning curve or a sign of things to come, we don’t really yet know. Personally, I like to think it’s the former.
And if it is just a stumble, this is an important lesson in not only the power of words, but also the power of the position and platform from which he speaks.
Much of the monologue centered on 4th District Council member Bob Johnson's statements concerning Downtown Lee's Summit Main Street and its Public Service Agreement with the City.
I'm not swinging at that pitch — today. This column isn't about incentives. It's not about Public Service agreements. And it's not about Downtown Lee's Summit.
This column is about leadership and the power of a public voice.
In defending Council member Johnson’s verbal jabs at Downtown Main Street and other groups operating within Public Service Agreements, Mayor Baird chose to question the leadership credentials of the hundreds of people working to make these groups — and our city — the best they can be.
Mayor Baird spoke specifically about Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street, The Chamber of Commerce and the Lee's Summit Economic Development Council. He spoke of collaboration and called for more communication between these groups and the Council body.
He’s right. There should be more back and forth. Council member Johnson’s comments alone tell us the downtown group needs to do a better job of educating people on their successes and the role it, and the business district it serves, play in the broader community. But it was at the end of this speech when he took an odd turn. In this section he turned his words on people and their ability to participate in the City’s growth.
His choice of words both dishonored the public's right to question and critique the work of it's elected officials and devalued the commitments of volunteers and civically involved members of our community.
“Here’s an interesting fact,” he said. “All of these organizations are supposed to develop leaders. And the only person that I can find when I cross referenced EDC, Downtown Main Street and the Lee’s Summit Chamber — the only person I ever found that was a chair of one of those organizations in the last 20 years that ran for office and became elected is sitting on our Council. And that’s Diane, Diane Forte. We need more Diane Fortes. We need more people that are in these organizations. These organizations need to reach out, find the talent, bring them in, cultivate them, take them through leadership and look what happens, they end up here on City Council with a greater understanding of how things work.”
At the close of the June 28 Lee's Summit City Council meeting, City of Lee's Summit Government Mayor Bill Baird took time to defend himself and his City Council colleagues from recent public criticisms while also calling out members of the Downtown Lee's Summit Main Street, Lee's Summit Chamber of Commerce and Lee's Summit Economic Development Council organizations for not cooperating with the Council and not developing enough leaders who run for elected office. Watch the full 18:45 clip here.
For anyone who is a staff or volunteer member of not just the three community organizations mentioned, that is an alarming statement on your value to the community. On the surface, it sounds like the Mayor believes the only leadership positions of value in our community are those that come with a seat on his dais.
This is not inclusive language. This is not the language of someone whose campaign and initial months in office have been spent talking about respect and hitting a reset on how elected officials conducted themselves in actions as well as speech.
During the campaign, when questioned about his lack of experience as an elected City official, Baird and his team successfully pointed to his experience as a community leader. They noted his experience in various organizations around town, as well his stint on the Lee’s Summit R-7 School Board. For him to now discredit the value of those positions seems both disingenuous and offensive to countless people doing good work in the name of community.
The idea that the only voices of value come from the people sitting on that particular dais is alarming.
Maybe this was a just stumble. A mistake in word choice and not the message he meant to convey. Either way, this is a lesson Mayor Baird, members of the Council and all of us need to take to heart.
Words and context matter. And when you find yourself called to a position of authority and with a megaphone able to reach the entire community, it’s important to think about how your message will be received. If you want to create an atmosphere of collaboration and respect, we can start with honoring and respecting the voices and roles of everyone in the community. Leaders come in all forms and serve in many capacities. Let’s hope our Mayor, and each of us, can keep that in mind.